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Clogs and AI Autonomous Cars


Clogs and AI Autonomous Cars 1
AI self-driving cars will need the capability to avoid traffic clogs at highway on ramps, or run the risk of adding to traffic jams. (GETTY IMAGES)

By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

When my children were young, we had a toy that they assembled consisting of seventy-five plastic interconnecting tunnel pieces, including having numerous tall ramps and winding paths, and when a marble was dropped into the topmost funnel it would be of great delight to all as we watched the marble roll throughout the structure.

It was advertised via a slogan that said down the tube it goes, where the marble stops, nobody knows, and presumably helped teach my children about physics (well, it was actually mainly just a lot of fun).

Being quite rambunctious, the kids sought out new ways to test the capabilities and limits of the toy. Putting one marble down the shoot was fun. Perhaps putting two marbles would be twice the fun! They tried this and it made them squeal with delight. If two marbles are twice the fun, certainly four marbles would quadruple the fun.

They kept increasing the number of marbles and with each such increment the plastic contraption would shake and shimmy more so. How many marbles would the system withstand?

The kids ran to the kitchen and grabbed an empty lemonade pitcher. They then collected together as many marbles as they could find in the house. Placing the marbles into the pitcher, they envisioned that they could pour the marbles into the topmost funnel of the contraption, and by doing so would be able to flood the system with zillions of marbles (okay, I admit zillions is not quite the case, let’s say at least 50 to 100 marbles, or something like that number).

My daughter and son began to jointly pour the marbles into the funnel. Sure enough, the marbles would zoom along, each following the other, doing so in a nearly continuous stream.

Marble after marble, it became a blur. There were so many marbles flowing that it became difficult to watch any particular marble and instead it was a stream of them. Now we had something truly marvelous to watch. After all the marbles had been poured out of the pitcher and had made their way to the bottom of the structure, the children sat back and discussed what to try next.

They filled up the pitcher again with the marbles.

They decided that rather than pouring the marbles via the spout of the pitcher and then into the funnel, they would use the top edge of the pitcher and just let the marbles all spill over into the funnel. In this manner, they could fill-up the funnel quickly, and not need to continue to hold and pour from the pitcher.

They could then watch in glee as the marbles massively weaved their way throughout the system.

Holding the pitcher with their combined sets of hands, they struggled to tip it over and let the marbles blurb out into the funnel. It was a cavalcade of marbles. At first, the marbles indeed began to flow into the tunnels.

But, suddenly, the marbles at the top came to a halt. Did something jam the funnel? Upon inspection, the children discovered that with so many marbles sitting in the funnel, they had collided with each other and did so in a manner that none of them was able to flow out of the funnel. Even though an individual marble could still have made its way down the funnel, the myriad of them had bunched up in a manner that prevented any single marble from proceeding.

The kids had invented a clog.

Thinking Seriously About Clogs

We all know about clogs in our bathroom sinks.

Over time, the gunk of hair, toothpaste, and who-knows-what will inevitably cling to the walls of the pipe and prevent water from readily flowing down the pipes. You need to either use some kind of acid dissolving liquid or a plunger or a mechanical rooter or other approach to get the gunk to break free. Clogs, I’d dare say they are universally hated and they are a pain in the neck to deal with.

There’s another kind of clog that you likely have to deal with every day. If you drive to work on a freeway, which I do daily here in Southern California, there are inevitably clogs of one kind or another on the freeways here.

The first clog that I usually encounter involves navigating an on-ramp onto the freeway. For many of our freeways, we are using a metered ramp system.

If you’ve not seen one of these before, it is a traffic signal setup on the ramp and regulates the passage of cars from the on-ramp onto the freeway. When they were first introduced in Los Angeles, some drivers hated them, while other drivers were thankful the metered system was put in place.

The way it works is that cars come from a street onto the lower part of an on-ramp and then come up to a point where there’s a traffic signal on the on-ramp.

When the traffic signal is green, you can proceed further onto the on-ramp and then onto the freeway. When the traffic signal is red, you are supposed to stay put until the light goes green. In some cases, the green light allows for just one car to proceed, while in other cases a posted sign states that two cars can proceed for each green light. There are some pretty hefty monetary fines for violating the traffic signal and most people tend to obey it.

During the busiest traffic times of the day, the metered light is running. When the traffic thins out on the freeway, the metered light is either shown entirely as green or they turn off the meter and it is therefore assumed that you do not need to wait and can just proceed ahead. In many cases, there are actually two lanes on the on-ramp, one that is for those that can use the HOV lanes and one lane for those that aren’t able to use the HOV lanes. Typically, the HOV lane is not constrained by the meter and can proceed ahead at will.

In the case of just a single lane for the on-ramp and with the meter being used, the traffic on the on-ramp is relatively orderly.

Drivers wait their turn and sit on the on-ramp patiently waiting for the green (though some get irritated waiting for the green and I suppose saying they are waiting patiently is a bit of an overstatement). When the light goes momentarily green, the car at the front of the line of cars proceeds. And, if the green light allows for two cars to go at once, the second car quickly follows on the heels of the first car.

The reason why some people like this approach is that it turns what could otherwise be an ugly free-for-all into an orderly sequence series of events.

Rather than cars all jockeying for position, it is clear cut that you wait in line, in the lane, and you take your turn. It’s like being in kindergarten again. Those that are worn out by line cutters and rude drivers see this as a systematic way to put them into their place and get them to act in a polite manner, whether they like it or not. The ones that hate the meters are those that feel it is an infringement of their right to drive as they wish and it seems like it takes forever for the on-ramp traffic to proceed.

A study done about ten years ago, around the year 2000, in Minnesota, claimed that ramp meters had a substantive positive impact on aiding freeway traffic, including that without the meters there was a 9% drop in available freeway capacity, a 22% increase in travel times, a drop in freeway speeds by 7%, and accidents increased by 26%. I’d vote you take that with a grain of salt and there are various studies that both support meters and refute the use of meters.

You might assume this metered approach eliminates any chances of a clog. Not so.

There’s at least one loophole in this approach when there are two lanes available via the on-ramp and when one of the lanes is the HOV one that does not need to stop for the meter.

Clogs On The Freeway Onramp

Here’s what often happens.

A car at the front of the line and waiting for the meter to go green is eager to get moving, and the instant the light goes green, the car hits the gas to burst forward. Meanwhile, a car in the HOV on-ramp lane is eager to get ahead of the cars waiting for the meter, and so that driver has hit the gas to zip along past the standstill cars, doing so since they don’t need to wait for a green light. You end-up with two cars both trying to rocket forward and yet the path just past the meter is often a slimming down of two lanes into one lane (the one lane that will lead onto the freeway).

Thus, you can have two cars, both of which thinks they have the right-of-way, entering into a tight squeeze of slimming down from two lanes to one lane.

Sometimes, the metered driver is unaware that the HOV driver is coming up upon them. Sometimes the HOV driver doesn’t realize that the metered driver is moving forward, having gotten the green light. Sometimes, both drivers know that the other driver is moving ahead and they purposely challenge each other.

If the other driver doesn’t know the other one is there, they can accidentally ram into each other or perhaps make a wild and dangerous swerve or similar maneuver.

If both drivers know the other is there, it becomes a scary chicken match as to which one will back-down first.

In fact, believe it or not, I’ve seen two such drivers that came to a complete halt on the upper part of the on-ramp, each not being able to proceed ahead, and each not willing to allow the other to move ahead. I’ve heard stories of occasions where two such drivers got out of their cars and then went to fisticuffs right there on the freeway. Road rage!

For my article about road rage, see:

For my article about driving and traffic aspects, see:

Clogs In Nature

Clogs can happen in a multitude of circumstances.

A recent research study took a close look at fire ants and how they avoid creating clogs when they are developing their underground tunnel systems.

The study done by researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Department of Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, and the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, involved observing ants during a collective excavation effort.

The researchers placed the ants into transparent containers and rigged up a means to track them and analyze their movements. Using Lorenz curves, the researchers mathematically made various calculations about the work efforts.

They proceeded to also create a simulation involving a cellular automata model and wanted to compare biological behaviors to robo-physical behaviors.  This work also pertains to swarm intelligence.

For my article about swarm intelligence, see:

One of the key findings was that the ants seemed to be willing to undertake idle time for some of the ants that were outside the tunnel in order to avoid clogs in the tunnels.

It was a kind of wait your turn approach.

There were observed instances of ants that appeared to wait outside the tunnel and did so presumably because they were able to somehow discern that if they entered into the tunnel it would clog things up.

Did the ants actually logically reach this brilliant conclusion and maybe had deeply thought through the ramifications of too many of them in the tunnel at one time?

Or, was it some more innate kind of detection and reaction?

Either way that it happens, the anti-clogging method of these living creatures was fascinating to see happen and it lends additional credence to using similar kinds of strategies and tactics to be used for artificial systems such as AI based systems.

Anti-Clogging Techniques For Autonomous Cars

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI systems for self-driving cars. One aspect involves the traffic coordination of multitudes of AI self-driving cars.

There are some pundits of AI self-driving cars that seem to believe that the advent of AI self-driving cars will magically do away with any and all traffic jams.

This is a rather far-fetched assumption. It seems to be based on the notion that all AI self-driving cars will carefully orchestrate their collective movements and therefore they will overtly avoid any traffic jams or clogs.

For my article about idealism and AI self-driving cars, please see:

If you live in some kind of Utopian world, I suppose you can imagine that all AI self-driving cars will politely and carefully communicate with each other in a flawless manner and somehow arise to the challenge of being able to ensure there aren’t any traffic jams.

I assure you this is a thorny problem and not so easily solved.

Before launching into a discussion about the all-seeing all-knowing anti-clogging, let’s also consider another factor in the advent of AI self-driving cars.

It isn’t going to happen overnight that we suddenly have all AI self-driving cars on our roads and no conventional cars. Right now, there are around 200+ million conventional cars in the United States alone. Those are not going to disappear. The emergence of AI self-driving cars will occur over many years. It will take even more years for people to give up their conventional cars and gradually switch over to true AI self-driving cars, which, we don’t even know yet whether people will be willing to do so.

Allow me to explain that last point about switching over to true AI self-driving cars. There are various levels of AI self-driving cars. The topmost level, Level 5, consists of an AI self-driving car that can drive entirely by the AI and does not need any human driver. In fact, the idea is that there is no provision for a human driver in a Level 5 self-driving car (the pedals aren’t there, the steering wheel is not there, etc.).

For the levels of AI self-driving cars, see my article:

Will people be willing to have only Level 5 self-driving cars for which no human driving is presumably allowed?

Some people like to drive.

They love to drive.

They insist that driving is essentially a human right (that’s a bit extreme, I realize). Those car drivers might cling to being able to drive and fight any effort to force them to no longer drive. It will be interesting to see how society and the government opt to deal with those last scrappers that won’t give over to having the AI solely be the driver of cars.

The reason that their driving is important takes us back to the anti-clogging topic.

The anti-clogging camp would assert that if you include human drivers onto the roadways then you are not going to achieve the full sense of anti-clogging.

Those darned human drivers will inextricably cause a clog.

A justification then of banning human driving would be that it would presumably then allow for no clogs. Which has the greater weight in our society, people being able to drive or eliminating traffic clogs (of course, there are other reasons for restricting or preventing human drivers)? You be the judge (for now).

For the moment, we’ll sidestep the question of human drivers in the mix.

Assume that we had an all and only AI self-driving car world.

Would we be able to avoid any and all clogs?

Let’s use the on-ramp circumstance as an exemplar.

You have AI self-driving cars trying to get onto the freeway.

We can assume that the principles of HOV lane use might still apply, and so we might have AI self-driving cars that have no human occupants or maybe one human occupant that are waiting in the metered line, meanwhile there are AI self-driving cars with two or more human occupants and thus considered HOV-permitted and able to speed-up the ramp and not abide by the meter.

The meter goes green and the AI self-driving car at the head of the pack starts to move ahead. The AI self-driving car in the unfettered HOV on-ramp lane comes up to the point where the two cars are going to meet-up and needs to decide which of them goes first. This is reminiscent of the human driver problem earlier described. Now, we have AI self-driving car getting caught up in the same predicament.

What happens?

There is the presumed availability of V2V or vehicle-to-vehicle communications available.

This means that the HOV on-ramp self-driving car, we’ll refer to it as car “X” might initiate a V2V conversation with the AI self-driving car that was waiting for the green light, we’ll refer to it as car “Q” and that X might inform Q that X is barreling ahead and please stay back.

This is somewhat akin to the fire ants.

One fire ant is proceeding into the tunnel, so to speak, and the other fire ant is remaining “idle” as it waits its turn.

Here’s a question for you, why should Q abide by the instructions or edict provided by X?

In other words, why can’t Q tell X that X should slow down and let Q proceed ahead?

Why should one of them be considered the commander of the other?

Indeed, some argue that our driving is based partially on a sense of “greed” or selfishness, whereby traffic generally flows because each car is doing what it can to maximize its own advantage.

But, if you have two “drivers” and each of which demands to go first, what kind of tie breaker do you have?

For a look at greed and driving, see my article:

Who Decides To Avert A Clog

You could say that in this case it should not be up to the two cars and their respective AI’s to decide as to which goes ahead first.

Instead, it should be the infrastructure.

It is anticipated that our roadways will gradually be outfitted with high-tech sensors and other systems, and there will be the advent of V2I, vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.

Thus, in this example, perhaps the meter should be “smart enough” to realize that another AI self-driving car is coming up the on-ramp in the HOV lane, and so the meter then via V2I informs the Q to not proceed just yet (or, maybe keeps the red light a bit longer), and allows X to flow along through the ramp. Or, perhaps the V2I informs the X to slow down and allow the Q to proceed ahead.

How did the infrastructure determine which goes first?

It could be based on some algorithm that tries to ascertain which of the two is “best” suited to go first.

Or, maybe it randomly selects if otherwise everything else about the situation would be considered a tie. As an aside, if you are interested in algorithms for traffic jams solving, you might want to explore ALINEA, one of the more studied such algorithms for this purpose.

There are some that advocate we might consider implementing a points system.

AI self-driving cars would earn points for certain acts and potentially need to use up points for other kinds of acts.

Suppose you are human occupant in Q, and you are in a hurry to get to work, you might have instructed your AI to go ahead and use up points to try and get ahead of other traffic. When in a dilemma such as the standoff at the on-ramp, perhaps the Q offers to provide points to X for purposes of letting Q go ahead. There might be a negotiation among them as to trading points for the circumstance.

It might not though still solve things because suppose that both Q and X are determined to go first, and are each willing to give up points to do so. You can include other variants such as maybe they auction points and the highest bidder wins. Etc. In any case, this can get complicated and some doubt that we’ll use a point system.

A similar viewpoint is that maybe there would be electronic money exchanged.

Instead of using points as a kind of barter, we might allow for the purchase of traffic maneuvers. You want onto the freeway fast, you can pay money to do so, electronically transferred in real-time (perhaps using blockchain).

But, this has its downsides as it might lead to our public roadways becoming dominated by those that have money over those that do not.

For my article about blockchains and AI self-driving cars, see:

For my article about tit-for-tat and AI self-driving cars, see:

Clogs Arise In Lots Of Driving Situations

So far, I’ve focused on the on-ramp example.

This serves as a simple means to look at the clog problem.

Enlarge the scope to the freeway overall.

The number of clogs and the emergence of clogs is many times the magnitude of the on-ramp example.

You’ve got multiple lanes.

Multiple on-ramps and off-ramps.

Hundreds or perhaps thousands of cars.

Each car is headed to its own desired location.

There are miles upon miles of freeway.

There are numerous freeway interchanges.

Maintenance and upkeep of the freeways is taking place and can mire the roadways while doing so. And so on.

The other day, I was driving on the freeway and a car became stalled in the middle of the freeway.

Up until the point of the stalled car, the traffic was flowing smoothly and pretty much at the maximum legal speed.

The traffic began to get snarled and it wasn’t at first apparent as to why.

As I got within a few cars of the stalled car, I could see the upcoming cars would come right up to the standstill car and then try to move into the lane to the left or right of the clogging car.

The cars in those lanes would sometimes allow the other cars to get into their lane, and in other cases they would not.

It’s a dog eat dog world.

Many drivers didn’t want to allow the other cars to get ahead and wanted to preserve their own movement forward unimpeded.

I tell this story about the stalled car because you need to keep in mind that even an AI self-driving car could become stalled on the freeway.

Pundits dreaming about the AI self-driving car utopia don’t seem to realize that a self-driving car is still a car.

A self-driving car is going suffer breakdowns.

It will happen.


For my article about repairing of AI self-driving cars, see:

For my article about non-stop use of AI self-driving cars, see:


How will the sudden stalling of an AI self-driving car while on the freeway be handled and done so in a manner that avoids any kind of clogging or traffic jam?

If the anti-clogging happens only for those AI self-driving cars near to the incident, by sharing with each other V2V, would this alleviate all clogging or would there still be some residual clogging?

And, it would seem like the residual clogging would have a cascading effect. Self-driving cars downstream of the disabled self-driving car are likely to experience some impact, even if minimal.

You might suggest that there would be a master control system that would oversee all traffic.

It would seek to prevent any traffic jams.

Therefore, rather than the envisioned more localized P2P of the V2V, we might have a “Big Brother” kind of system to optimize traffic flow and eliminate clogs. This would seem like a rather tall task computationally, and one even questions whether it is possible to achieve, given too the logistical vagaries involved.

There will also be some that find this notion somewhat repugnant as it might give the government excessive control and oversight.

It seems doubtful that a “perfect” world of no clogs is likely feasible.

The goal might be instead to focus on minimizing and mitigating clogs. Overall, the hope would be to limit the severity of clogs and the prevalence of clogs. This might combine both a global master control system along with localized P2P systems. It’s an interesting and challenging “edge” problem that will become more apparent as the advent of AI self-driving cars emerges.

Meanwhile, I guess we’ll all struggle with your day-to-day clogs, including that my kitchen sink has now clogged up and it looks like I’ll need to call a plumber.

Copyright 2020 Dr. Lance Eliot

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.

[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column:]

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